A couple of months ago I was giving a workshop based on my first book, Grieving Mindfully. The book is based on the practice of mindfulness and draws heavily from Buddhist teachings and approaches to suffering. It's by no means a "Buddhist" book, and I've come to learn over the years that atheists and churches have all used it with benefit.
One of the participants at this particular workshop shared a story. They were at a teaching being given by a Buddhist lama in the Tibetan tradition. A distraught attendee had recently lost a spouse and asked the lama how they should manage their grief. The response they received in this moment of pain was something to the effect of "your spouse is dead, there's no sense thinking about them. Move on."
Two thoughts came to my mind. The first was a story I recount in the book of a woman whose baby dies. She goes to see the Buddha to ask him to bring the baby back to life and thereby end her grief. The Buddha agrees, on the condition that she brings him a mustard seed from a house death has never visited. She goes all over town, unable to find such a house. With the realization of the universal nature of grief, she takes comfort in meditation, takes refuge with the Buddha and ultimately (according to legend) becomes fully enlightened. This is a very different approach than what this lama said. The Buddha has this woman meet the entire city at their common pressure point-- loss. She must have heard hundreds of stories of loss, been given comfort by others feeling her pain, and comforted others suffering her same pain. Quite different from being told there's no sense in thinking about her baby anymore, or to just get over it.
The second thought I had was a reminder, it's generally a good idea not to ask lamas for advice on relationships, especially marital advice or issues related to grief. They don't participate in family life. The comment the lama made was a reminder of this. It would have been more helpful for the lama to say "look, I have no idea what that kind of pain is like. It sounds absolutely awful. You should ask someone who is trained in this. I can teach you to meditate, maybe that will help."
Thankfully the participant who shared this story was commenting that a mindfulness-based approach to grief, one that trains people to endure the ups and downs of emotional pain, seems much more compassionate than the advice the lama gave. This isn't meant to put down the lama at all, but to point out how diverse Buddhism is and what a wide range of approaches all belief systems have to grief. I've heard variations of the lama story many times over the years. I am glad to contribute a small piece to counter-balance what I think of as an unhelpful attitude towards grief, be it from Buddhism or popular culture-- you suffer for a little while, but then you'd better dust yourself off and move on. It's the same unrealistic and simplistic advice many of my cancer patients get-- think positive and you're as good as cured.
The truth is much, much more complicated. The science tells us that roughly one third of us do seem to dust ourselves off and "move on", whatever that means. The rest of us have a very different experience. For another third of people who experience grief, some very intense emotions show up for a very long time. It's for this population that I write, and this population that needs all the tools they can get. It's not a sign of any weakness or deficiency to suffer for a long time after loss. And not everyone agrees on what "too long" is. I think grief carries a potential that can be harnessed, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident. Like the grieving mother who goes to the Buddha, grief can carry us forward into some very, very dark places, but also-- often unexpectedly--become a catalyst for growth.
My new book comes out in a couple of days. I hope it helps steer readers towards that kind of growth.